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Federalism motion has the answers the UK needs

August 14, 2021 3:47 PM
By Robert Jones in Lib Dem Voice

Through Brexit and the pandemic, our country has undergone social and political upheavals which will certainly leave a longstanding mark. But these systemic shocks are potential turning points in history where we have the opportunity to remake our politics for the better. Constitutional and electoral reform are dry subjects which fail to enthuse many in politics, let alone the general public. Overcoming that is a challenge in itself, but the current circumstances mean it has never been a better time to make the case for reform for a politics that is more open, fair and representative.

On Sunday 19 September, Lib Dem Conference will consider a motion on 'A Framework for England in a Federal UK' which you can read on page 63 of the agenda. I believe it is a very important motion, addressing some key questions for the formation of a federal UK: the lack of genuine or consistent devolution for England; and the relationship between England and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Federalism can unleash great potential to empower communities, expand transparency and accountability, help to heal the wounds and divisions exposed by Brexit and to 'level up' the economy. Levelling up alone could deliver considerable economic growth in the 'rest' of the UK and lift millions out of poverty. But only federalism could do this. The kind of devolution the Conservatives and Labour have pursued has failed to truly empower communities and leaves Westminster all too often intervening and meddling in local and regional economies.

For me, the most important (and exciting) thing about federalism is its potential to genuinely empower people by radically shifting the balance of power. Under devolution, powers exercised at Holyrood, the Senedd or Stormont have in effect been delegated by Westminster. MPs can weaken those powers or withdraw them altogether, without consultation or the consent of those institutions or the people they represent.

By contrast, under federalism each set of institutions in each part of the UK draw their powers and authority directly from a constitution with a clear division of competences that can be modified only by negotiation and agreement. Each nation would be of equal status, equally empowered, and equally sovereign.

Westminster isn't about to shut down Holyrood. Politically it would be very difficult to do. But the mere fact that it could means nationalists will always be able to point to the constitutional arrangement as proof that only independence can guarantee national identity and dignity. Federalism, if done properly, will blow their arguments out of the water and put an end to the serious threat of so called soft-nationalism. Of course, the situation is unique and different in each part of the UK. But federalism is a dynamic and innovative system of government which can deliver tailored solutions to each set of circumstances whilst maintaining a system which is overall fair, democratic and broadly accepted by the majority.

One of the biggest challenges in creating a federal UK is finding a fair balance between England and the other home nations, whilst delivering a reasonable distribution of power and decentralisation within England. Scotland is a nation and its only legitimate partner in a federal UK is England as a nation. Only a union of England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland will have the potential to be broadly accepted as fair and authoritative by people throughout the whole UK.

The motion before conference crucially offers the option of exploiting the dynamic and adaptable nature of federalism by preserving the territorial and notional integrity of England as a nation on equal footing with the rest of the UK, whilst also transferring power to be exercised regionally within England (option A in clause VII). This kind of devolution within federalism can deliver a fair and bright future for a federal UK.

* Robert Jones stood as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Ruyton and Baschurch ward in Shropshire in May 2021 and has been involved in campaigns and movements for federalism in Europe and the UK since 2006. Federalism motion has the answers the UK needs (libdemvoice.org)